This series about the life of Edward B. Burling commenced with a post about his connections with Katherine Graham, the owner and publisher of the Washington Post, and then retreated in time to a post about his birth and early years in Iowa, 1870-1890, followed by a post about his four years at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1890-1894 and another about his 22 years as a Chicago attorney, 1895-1917.
The Federal Government Attorney
In 1917, at age 47, Burling finally did manage to leave Chicago to go to Washington, D.C. Though the urging of a law school friend, he became a lawyer for the U.S. Food Administration, which was an agency for the purchase and sale of foodstuffs and stabilizing the U.S. market price of wheat and which was directed by Herbert Hoover, another native Iowan from the small town of West Branch and, of course, a future U.S. President.
However, the two men did not get along with one another, and Ned immediately left this position to be a lawyer (and then General Counsel) for the U.S. Shipping Board, which was responsible for organizing U.S. shipyards during World War I, a position he held through the end of the war in 1918.
Burling relished the life of a top government lawyer. As he said at the time to his friend Learned Hand, “It’s like expecting a country girl who has spent her entire life milking cows to go back contentedly after she has been to the city–seen the bright lights and been screwed. That’s the way I feel–my first big screw. And I want more of it.”
At the Shipping Board Burling crossed paths with another future Grinnell College luminary, Joseph Welch, then one of its young lawyers. Welch later observed that in 1918 he was 28 while Burling was 48 and whenever he wrote a letter for Burling’s signature, Ned’s “first act was to seize a pen and sign it. Then you would read it and often suggest a change. But that beautiful gesture of confidence gave me so much happiness,” and Welch thereafter emulated that practice.
Later Connections Between Burling and Joseph Welch
Parenthetically, 36 years later, in 1954, their paths again crossed, albeit indirectly. One of Welch’s clients in the Army-McCarthy hearings at that time, John G. Adams, thought that Welch was not doing a good job in defending him before the committee. As a result, Adams met with Burling to see if Covington & Burling could represent Adams. Burling’s response: Adams probably would not want the firm to represent him because one of its partners (Donald Hiss) was the brother of Alger Hiss, who had been convicted in 1950 for having provided classified documents to an admitted Communist, Whittaker Chambers. Having Burling’s law firm represent Adams, it was suggested, would leave the firm and Adams open to an attack by McCarthy. As a result, the law firm did not enter the McCarthy arena.
Indeed, the law firm’s connections with Donald and Alger Hiss were deep. In July 1949 Alger Hiss’ federal-court trial for perjury for testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee ended in a hung jury, splitting 8 to 4 for conviction. Burling and his law partners were upset by the lack of an acquittal, and Burling thought Hiss’ well known attorney had made serious errors in defending the case.
The next installment in this series about Burling will be a summary of his distinguished career as a Washington, D.C. attorney in private practice, 1919-1966.
 Citations to the sources for this post are found in this blogger’s Edward Burnham Burling, The College’s Quiet Benefactor (April 2008)(18-page essay and bibliography; on file in Grinnell College’s Special Collections and Archives).
 Posts about Joseph Welch are listed in the “Joseph Welch and Senator Joseph McCarthy” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: United States (HISTORY).